The insidious rise of the blockbuster video game

There’s something more insidious about the trend, though. Blockbuster movies have any number of quirks, but one of the weirdest is that their size (aesthetically and culturally) can make them feel like pop-culture obligations. Avatar is the highest-grossing film of all time in the U.S., but most people would be hard-pressed to find someone who claimed it as their favorite film. Seeing it was just one of those experiences everyone wanted to have for a few weird weeks in 2009. It was lush and impressive, but also formulaic and a little laughable. It wasn’t that good, but it was big. That’s the greatest trick blockbusters ever pulled: convincing the world that they were fun and entertaining simply by virtue of being big and looking fun and entertaining.

As a result, video games learned some of the wrong lessons of success. By overwhelming the player with sensation and choice and size, games can create the illusion of being a lot more fun than they actually might be. Some of this is confirmation bias—if you spend 30 or 60 or 100 hours doing something, and that something calls itself a “game,” you’re going to want to justify the investment—but it’s also because we’ve raised ourselves on years of movies whose size sometimes outstrips their entertainment value, so we feel comfortable repeating the process on our game consoles. A video game like Dark Souls 2 is a perfect example of the way games have closed the gap between themselves and movie blockbusters: It offers epic quests built on a complicated mythology, it inspires serious devotion from its fans, and it’s mostly just exhausting. The point of the game is not to enjoy playing it but merely to say you made it through. It sprawls massively before us, bending our will to its own. It exists simply to exist.

That doesn’t mean all is lost, though, for movies or video games.